The secret of good tragedy

Here we are, just (a few hours) under two weeks since the earthquake. We felt a decent jolt last night, which was the first one I’ve felt here since last Tuesday night (there have been two others we would normally have felt, but on Saturday morning we were driving, and on Saturday evening we were in Darfield (and felt it) ). It’s weird how quickly you tune back in to these things – under a certain level of violence you don’t consciously notice, although you may suddenly realise that you’ve been holding your breath, or that you’ve tensed up. The standard joke was that Cantabrians don’t get out of their chairs for anything under 4.5, or pause in conversation under 4. We’re not quite back to that level of familiarity yet, but we’re getting there.

It feels quite surreal to be going about daily life with the carnage in the city. But it’s the only option that will lead us back to sanity. Maybe that’s one of the secrets of being human – we treat the world the way we want it to be, and gradually either mould it around our thoughts to fit, or realign our thoughts to coincide with a stubborn reality. My favourite author, Terry Pratchett, sums it up rather neatly in this exchange between Death and his granddaughter Susan:

All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME … SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (Gollancz, 1996)

Or from slightly different perspective (same author):

Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless deeps of space! You have this thing you call… boredom? That is the rarest talent in the universe! We heard a song — it went ‘Twinkle twinkle little star….’ What power! What wondrous power! You can take a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength, and turn it into a little song for children! You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!

– Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky (Doubleday, 2004)

So life goes on, as it has to. No, not as it has to – as it will, regardless. That’s the hardest thing to comprehend. Malice, yes. Hate, yes. Those things we understand. If Christchurch had been hit by a series of bombs, we would still be in exactly the same physical situation, but so much better placed emotionally! Because that’s something we can do something about – we have someone to hate. Someone to beat. And it’s why people rant and rave and shout at the ground – it’s hard to imagine the earth beneath your feet as anything other than peaceful and reassuringly solid. Fear becomes anger, which is much easier to deal with, and writers (me included) personify the ground as something that has suddenly, callously, completely undeservedly, turned on us, attacked us without warning. Gary McCormick’s poem “What the Drummer Said to the Drum”,  begins ‘You miserable, low life bastard’, which seems to resonate for many people. (The line that chimes for me is ‘I saw you the other day run up a blind alley full of hatred and dark breath’, but more about that in a few paragraphs.) Because it’s easier than understanding the truth that is referred to in the first Pratchett quote: that it has nothing to do with us. That the earth doesn’t have it in for us (however much we deserve it to). The earth isn’t even aware of us, any more than we are aware of the trillions of bacteria that live in and on us. When you run down a city street, you aren’t thinking of the ants you tread on. There’s no malice involved when you chop a worm in half, digging the veggie garden. It’s just … a thing that happens. Not even collateral damage – that implies an awareness of the risk to others. Apparently the Port Hills have risen by 40 cm. Maybe the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates thought the place would look nicer that way. Maybe they’re in the midst of a passionate love-affair, and we got the tectonic equivalent of creaking bedsprings. Even these suggestions – mad as they are – are easier to accept the most likely truth: that it just happened. No malice, no volition, no awareness, nothing. Convection currents beneath the lithosphere. Exactly the way that rising heat makes the air above the highway shimmer in summer.

After September’s quake, I wrote notes for a poem. (A haibun, as it happens.) It was still only in the couple-of-notes-jotted-here-and-there form on February 22nd. (A friend told me that she was in the process of writing a short story about September as this quake hit.) I’ve spent a fortnight thinking things along the lines of ‘bugger, there goes that one’ – the physical experiences were vastly different, and it’s hard to remember how important September seemed at the time. But … I’m loathe to abandon it. And I’ve been asked to take part in a session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival which will be a group of Christchurch writers speaking about the earthquake(s) and the work they’ve produced. So I’m going to bring the notes out of hiding, and write that poem as well as a new one for this new quake. I know there was a time when doing so would make me question my own morality – is it right to use a tragedy for your own ends? Especially given how much worse this second quake has been?

But that’s the thing: I’m a writer. It’s what I do. I process things by writing about them – somehow or other I think better with a moving pen in my hands than I do with my hands still. It would be hypocritical and false to sit back and say ‘oh but I couldn’t; art means nothing compared to this.’ Because I could, I can, and I will. And art is nothing if not rooted in the experiences of humanity.

Who am I kidding?

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief;
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.

– U2, from ‘The Fly’
Achtung Baby, 1991

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One thought on “The secret of good tragedy

  1. Fantastic post, Joanna. Thank you – I’ve enjoyed seeing the way your mind winds through the chaos in your city – and how you come, in the end, to that place where you can write about it.

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